“Oh my goodness.”
“This is pathetic.”
“A complete and utter disaster.”
These were the notes that camp director J.R. Schoon had for the O.J. DeJonge Middle School students after their first night of eighth grade camp at Grace Adventures in Mears.
Each cabin is scored for tidiness — and the eighth graders hadn’t done well.
While the girls were taking their turn at eating lunch Wednesday, Schoon told them their cabins had been the messiest he’s seen in his 14 years directing the camp.
But he had good news about their Tuesday results.
“I have never seen such a drastic difference between day one and day two,” Schoon said.
The girls erupted in applause — for themselves, or maybe out of relief.
“Now, they weren’t perfect,” Schoon continued. “They were close.”
That hard-nosed approach is one of the five-day camp’s defining features, Schoon said. When scoring the cabins, he doesn’t even tell campers what they’re being marked off for. They have to figure it out for themselves.
Earlier Wednesday, campers were tasked with starting three fires with 10 matches. Kindling? Find your own. Extra points were awarded for every unused match.
“It’s just all about building teamwork, taking responsibility for each other, encouraging each other for the success of the cabin,” Schoon said.
The camp also aims to “break down the cliques and expose these kids to their classmates,” Schoon said.
Eighth graders are divided from their typical social groups and even from similar kids, said Kara Jensen, assistant camp director. Sporty kids, artsy kids, quiet kids and loud kids are split among the cabins.
While eighth graders took turns scaling a large rock wall Tuesday night, their classmates waited behind them, suggesting rocks to grab and encouraging kids they may not have even known before coming to camp, Jensen said.
“It’s fun to see the kids come together,” Jensen said.
For the first time, laser tag was available this year. One team had command of a tower in the woods, while another team controlled a patch of overturned boats and kayaks. Eighth graders flanked each other through the trees, aiming their toy rifles at laser receivers strapped to their heads.
The camp has also refreshed its fleet of sunfish sailboats.
For years, the school has partnered with Ludington Youth Sailing School to teach the basics of sailing and canoeing on Upper Silver Lake. The sailboats deteriorated until they were barely floating, Schoon said, and this year the program obtained six “brand spanking new” sailboats that should last just about “forever,” he said.
Letting kids try their hand at uncommon activities like sailing is another reason the school puts on the camp, Schoon said. He said one of his students rarely leaves Ludington and has never been on a vacation, because their single mother can’t afford it.
“I know he came home and said to his mom, ‘Mom, we get to ride horses, and we get to go on a zipline,’” Schoon said. “All these things that we do, I’d say half of these kids have never done before.”
While the weather is a bit chillier than normal for the campers’ Monday through Friday stay, they’ve maintained a positive attitude through bouts of wind and rain, Schoon said.
“They’re having a blast,” he said. “Their excitement level just been fantastic. … It’s just a great group of kids.”
Bringing his golf cart to a stop beside a field where campers were playing frisbee, Schoon named counselors and other volunteers who’ve been running the camp for decades.
He passed former camp director Ross Donley, who was wearing a T-shirt commemorating a camp from over 20 years ago. Further up the path, Eileen Klein, director of the water activities, was there for her 31st year at the camp.
“I guess eighth grade camp is kind of in your blood,” Schoon said. “If you believe in the program and what we’re trying to do, you’re forever connected.”